Chapter 6 - A Tale of Shadow and Fire
For an hour they sat and planned. Discussing goals, discussing possibilities, discussing options. Elbreth successfully fought the tide of sorrow, busying her mind with learning as much from Erkie as she could about sneaking into an encampment, drawing out information, and what he expected from this hobgoblin. In the end they decided to take a different route. They would avoid the shadow creatures, if they could. They would find the hobgoblin and kill him, despite being one man short. Erkie was confident in his abilities to sneak attack, to track. Cora was confident in her abilities to fight, as long as she could see. What am I confident in? Them. I am confident in the companions my uncle chose for this task. Heaven help me if I lose them, too!
They shouldered their packs and headed towards one of the heavy oak doors across the room. Tentatively, Erkie reached out a hand and tried the latch. Locked. He turned back to the two women with a grin, pulling his ring of lock-picks from his pocket with a jangling flourish.
"I have a good feeling about this!" He waggled his eyebrows, chose his implements, and turned his attention back to the door.
Within seconds there was a low clunk, and the latch moved. They were in. A flicker of warm firelight, still faint, came from down the hallway.
"Finally! Some light!" Cora pushed forward, leading the way down the hallway with her bow drawn. Following suit, Elbreth stepped in after her, allowing Erkie to bring up the rear.
The pale green of the lichen was slowly overpowered by the flickering of torchlight down the short corridor. Awash in firelight, the far end opened up by archway to what looked like a good-sized room. There was no sound but the hissing of flame as they entered the room and stopped just inside the entryway. Four torches ringed the mid-sized room, one in each corner. The corner to their left also had a closed doorway. In the centre of the room sat a large iron chest, banded and padlocked, and casting a stark, unwavering shadow on the floor around it.
"Just what I was hoping to see!" The gnome ran forward, rubbed his hands together in anticipation, and then cracked his knuckles before pulling out his lock-picks. He deftly inserted his tools and began working at the lock.
"Wait!" Elbreth shouted. Less than a second had passed and the heavy snick of the padlock had already declared the gnome's success."The shadow!" Elbreth had known there was something odd looking about that chest. It was too late. As she spoke, the shadow detached itself from the base of the chest and slid along the floor. It looked just like a shadow cast by any other object, flat and featureless, only it moved. With a gasping sigh, it drew itself up into three dimensions, the rounded dome of it's skull beneath the misty shroud making it seem almost human in form. Hovering behind the gnome, it stretched out an ethereal arm and reached into Erkie's rib cage. The gnome's body tightened, and his mouth opened as if to scream.
"No!" The shout came from Elbreth's left as an arrow few true, striking the shadow in the skull.
Angered at the interruption, the shadow withdrew its hand from Erkie's body, letting him crumple to the floor, and turned its attention to Cora. The sound of a howling wind came from it; the haunting sound sending chills up Elbreth's spine. Following the halfling's lead, Elbreth nocked an arrow and let fly, her attack striping off wisps of shadow from the creature's shoulder. As fast as she could, the half-elf nocked another. Cora had already tossed aside her bow and drawn her short sword. With a determined shout, the small blacksmith charged the inky shadow, swinging in a high arch at where its neck would be. Her sword and Elbreth's arrow met the shadow simultaneously, sending the skull bouncing and causing the dark mist to dissipate.
Cora dropped to her knees beside their gnomish friend and Elbreth ran quickly to her side. Erkie's eyes were sunken in, his skin was wan, pale, and paper-thin. He looked like death. Uneasy gasps rattled in his chest as he attempted to draw breath.
"Did'ja get him?" Erkie's voice was a whisper.
"Yeah, we got him good." Came Cora's reply as she brushed his hair from his forehead.
"Good," Erkie attempted to lick his lips. "I left the chest open for ya." His eyes flickered to Elbreth, "You'll do okay. You've got your uncle's spirit." With that, the gnome exhaled one last time, a jaunty grin plastered on his gaunt and lifeless face.
Elbreth wiped a silent tear from her cheek.
Ever practical, Cora began sorting through Erkie's pockets and backpack, making piles much as they'd done with Immeral's things. Elbreth just watched, voiceless.
"Why don't you go take a look in that chest, kiddo? See what treasure there might be that we can carry." The halfling didn't even turn from her work.
Thankful for something to do, Elbreth looked at the heavy iron chest. It wasn't necessarily very large, but the fact that it was made of iron definitely made it too heavy to carry out on their own. The half-elf looked warily at the chest's shadow on the floor. It was normal. Four different shadows waved softly, stretching out and away from the four torches that ringed the room. Slowly, the half-elf dropped to her knees and put her hand to the cold metal. The padlock open, there was nothing to do but heave the heavy lid upward. Grabbing onto the metal lip with both hands, Elbreth gave it a tug and hoisted it up on its hinges. With a creak of protest, the chest opened to reveal its contents. Elbreth's eyes scanned each item thoughtfully.
A linen bag of coins. A handful of loose gems. Those are useful. Another small bag, this one leather and holding small carved stone figures of what looked like gods and goddesses, about the size of her uncle's chess pieces. She recognized one of them as Gruumsh, the orcish god. Curious. A life-sized stone hand in the shape of a fist. It had a hole in the base as if to fit over a peg. And curiouser. The only other things were a few bronze buckles and cloak pins, and a long pewter hair pin.
Elbreth immediately twisted her crunchy hair, matted with dried blood, into a bun on the top of her head and stuck the hair pin through the mass. Enough of that mess, she thought, already feeling a little better. The stone hand and statuettes she tossed into her own backpack. Her uncle would have kept them to study later. Opening the bag of coins, she dumped them out into her lap and quickly sorted them. The coppers weren't worth keeping, so those she tossed back into the chest. Then, scooping up the loose gems and tucking them into the linen pouch along with the rest of the coins, she turned back to Cora.
The halfling was finished. She'd already begun stashing some of Erkie's things into her own backpack. "Find anything good?" Her tiny hands were deft in their game of making things fit.
"Some coins and gemstones," Elbreth handed the linen bag to Cora. "As well as a few carved stone things, some small statues and a fist. I'll show them to you later." Hitching her backpack on her shoulders, the young half-elf avoided looking at Erkie.
"I see you found something to keep your hair tied back with," Cora grinned, "it's a nice touch." She finished packing up her bag and handed Elbreth her share of rations as well as Immeral's swords to carry.
"Thanks," Elbreth smiled, tucking a wayward strand behind her ear before grabbing the swords. They were small and delicate, but finely crafted and razor sharp. Pursing her lips a moment, Elbreth then swung down her bag and unstrapped her bedroll. The best way to carry these will be wrapped up inside something. Quickly stashing the swords and the rations, she strapped the bedroll back on and slung her burden back in place.
"What do you think?" Cora was standing and dusting herself off. "We're down to the two of us, which makes our odds against that hobgoblin a little slimmer. This is your quest now, my girl." This last she spoke looking up, straight into Elbreth's eyes.
"Truthfully, I feel overwhelmed," Elbreth admitted. She blinked back tears and forced herself to continue, "I don't know that just the two of us will be enough against that hobgoblin. You can't see when there isn't torchlight, and I'm not much of a fighter."
"Hey now, none of that! You're just fine, kiddo. You have excellent aim, and good instincts. I wouldn't want anyone else at my back." Cora gave Elbreth's elbow a pat as she toddled past, armour bits jangling together. She stopped a few feet away, hands on hips, and surveyed the room. "Well, then, do we want to check this one last door in the corner, just so we know what's over here, before we head back to town? I figure we could probably hire an extra hand or two for what we've managed to pick up." She looked back at Elbreth questioningly.
"Sure," Elbreth agreed.
"Right then," the halfling nodded, "I'll take point. Your job is to tell me if there's anything I don't see." Elbreth grinned at the small woman's idiosyncratic courage and fell in step behind her.
As they approached the wooden door, Elbreth slowed. "What if it's locked?"
Cora jangled something in her hand wordlessly.
"Erkie's lock-picks!" Elbreth smiled. Practical Cora. "Do you know how to use them?"
"Not yet," came the reply. "But I'm sure I can learn." Cora tried the latch, it was open. "I just won't be practicing on this door!" She swung the door inward and the two stepped forward.
Elbreth heard a click, and then the whoosh and crackle of flame. Almost instinctively, the half-elf ducked to the floor and rolled to the side as flames from the other end of the corridor ripped through where they'd been standing. Then, just as suddenly as they'd come, the fire burst subsided.
Cora! The halfling was lying on the floor just ahead of Elbreth her right shoulder and face badly burned. She was unconscious. The stench of burned flesh and hair filled the air. A tendril of fear wormed its way down Elbreth's spine before the young woman was spurred into action. Flying to her knees beside her friend, her hands hovered uselessly over Cora's charred and bloodied features. Great blisters covered half of her face, some of them popped and oozing blood and liquids. The halfling's short-cropped hair was singed off of that side, too; blonde spikes gave way to grey ash and sticky baldness.
"No!" Elbreth murmured. "No, Cora. No, you can't die. You can't die!" Frantically the half-elf looked around for anything she could use - to staunch the blood, to clean the wounds, anything! Catching up her water skin, she gently trickled water from its spout across Cora's ravaged cheek.
The halfling moaned, an aching, heart-rending breath gasping through partially scorched lips. Elbreth tipped the skin up again, stopping the flow for a moment, and soothingly shushed her friend. One palm hovered protectively over Cora's charred face. A soft melody rose in the young woman's throat, its tune reminiscent of cooling water and soothing of moonlight. It was the song her mother used to sing whenever young Elbreth was upset. Slowly her outstretched hand began to shimmer with a pale violet glow that reached tendrils out to Cora's face, caressing it with light.
Startled, Elbreth stopped singing, and the glow faded from her hand. Where the tendrils of light had touched it, Cora's face had begun to scab over. It was healing. Watching closely, the half-elf reached out her hand again, palm hovering above the damage. Nothing. Tentatively, she began to hum. Almost instantly, the violet glow returned, its tendrils sweeping across the halfling's charred visage. Soon the scabs were sloughing off on their own, and fresh new skin was peeking out from underneath. In fact, there was barely a scar left.
Cora's breathing eased, settling into the regular rhythm of gentle sleep. Fresh skin glowed pink where the tendrils of magic had caressed it, and healthy hair replaced the pungent char that had been her halo. The halfling stirred. Looking around, Elbreth found a torch on the wall and, pulling her tinderbox from a pocket in her backpack, lit it carefully. Her hands were shaking. She looked back to her friend on the floor to find Cora's bright hazel eyes watching her.
"Well, now, what was that?" The small woman groaned, rubbing at joints as she pushed herself up to sit against the wall.
"A blast of fire?" Elbreth rushed to her friend's side, kneeling to inspect Cora's scars in the torchlight. Other than scorched clothing and a long pale scar across the woman's cheekbone, there was no evidence of the burn.
"Yes, I think I caught that much," the halfling said dryly. "I meant the part about why I'm not dying." The half-elf girl caught the older woman's pointed gaze and sat back on her heels.
"I - I'm not sure. I just reached out my hand and started to sing. A lullaby. My mother used to sing it to me whenever I'd had a nightmare." Elbreth dropped her eyes. "Then, a purple glow started to flow from my palm, and - and it healed you." Cora's steady eye contact forced the young girl to meet her gaze once more. The sat for a beat in silence, Elbreth holding her breath.
"Well, now. Elven magic." The halfling woman smiled gently, her bright eyes crinkling at the corners, and gave Elbreth's knee a pat. "So, then, my girl, what's next?"
The half-elf exhaled, her shoulders relaxing. Her eyes swept the room, buying time while her mind collected itself again. Right. We have a job to do. There will be time for emotions later.
"Truthfully, Cora? I don't want to quit, and I know we just said we'd check the next room, but I don't think we can fill this contract by ourselves." Elbreth looked thoughtfully back at the small fighter. "We could use some help. And, this is just another passage that probably opens to any number of more rooms."
Cora nodded decisively. "Right, then. We head back to Yortlebort." She clambered to her feet, "I'm sure we'll find someone willing, once they know who you are."
"Do you think I'll need to flaunt my title?" Elbreth started ahead through the door they'd come through. "I'd rather not. It feels - arrogant, somehow."
"It's not arrogant, dearie, it's political."
The pair fell silent as they neared the centre of the room. Erkie's remains.
"Do we leave him?" Cora's voice was hushed, a bare whisper in the vastness of the room.
"I don't want to, but I think we must. Like..." the girl swallowed. "Like my uncle, right? Just in case."
"Just in case," the halfling echoed. The two left the room in a silence that clung to them for some minutes. Their footsteps scuffled through corridor and chamber as they wound their way back towards the entrance.
Yes, going back is smarter. Elbreth pursed her lips grimly. At least, I think so. I hope Bugg isn't upset. The young diplomat's mind began to whirl with possibilities, none of them very positive. What if he refuses to pay us? Corner, another corner. What if he gives the contract to someone else? Could I use my status to persuade him not to? Strange room with mouldy bread. Is that even honourable practice? Passageway. Another corner. A sigh escaped her lips as she stepped over the remains of the orog.
"Hold up," Cora's voice was hushed. A small hand tugged at Elbreth's elbow.
"No, no. Hush!" The halfling's voice was urgent as she stepped in front. The raucous echo of goblin laughter ricocheted from the hewn walls of the corridor ahead of them before dying down to the barely discernible murmur of coarse voices.
"It's too far to run back, child, let's make for that empty room up ahead." Nocking an arrow, the halfling took off at a run, leaving Elbreth to follow behind her. Trying their best to breathe silently, the two adventurers ducked through the open door and closed it behind them with a soft snick. The room plunged into blackness.
The stench of aged gore assaulted their nostrils. The gutted half-ogre. Elbreth fought to swallow the bile that rose in her throat as the sound of goblin voices drew nearer.
Voices stopped just outside the door. A scuffling and a thud.
Elbreth nocked an arrow and stood back, partially hidden by the half-ogre carcass.
A hand at the latch. More laughter.
Elbreth drew back her bowstring.
The door cracked open. A twang as Cora released her arrow from the left. Guttural shouts of surprise, another thud, and the door flew open. One goblin stood framed in the dim lichen-light of the doorway, short-sword in hand, standing over the body of his downed comrade. Two more filled the space behind him, already nocking arrows. Elbreth aimed for the eye of the closest assailant and let fly. Her aim was true, and the goblin collapsed with a grunt.
Scrambling backward over the bodies beneath her feet, Elbreth fumbled with a second arrow. Another grunt and what must have been cursing as Cora's arrow found the third goblin's shoulder. One of the goblins' arrows grazed Elbreth's ribs, pinging off the back wall. Finally setting her second arrow, Elbreth aimed for the wounded goblin. This time it caught him in the throat and he fell with an angry gurgle. The half-elf pulled her eyes from dark burble of blood to see the last goblin fall, Cora standing over him with her sword drawn and smeared.
A muffled snore, or snort, or grunt. Perhaps all three at once. Just outside the door lay two large burlap sacks, and it was from one of these that the noises came.
Frowning, Cora wiped and sheathed her sword. Elbreth joined her by the doorway and the two stared down at the smaller of the two bundles. The snoring one.
"You there," Cora barked, nudging at the shape with her toe. There was no response. The bundle just shifted as though to make itself more comfortable. Narrowing her eyes and pulling her dagger, the halfling began cutting through the twine that stitched the burlap shut.
"Do you think they're prisoners?" Elbreth moved to do the same with the larger bundle.
"We'll find out," came Cora's reply.
As the burlap fell away, the two friends looked down to see what was revealed.
A very hairy dwarf; the snoring one. And a tattooed half-orc curled up like a baby, drool soaking into the burlap beneath him.
It took some maneuvering and a great deal of huffing, puffing, and dragging, but the two women eventually managed to drag the sleeping weights of the half-orc and the dwarf into the relative safety of the room at the end of the corridor. Hauling the orog carcass to the side, the two ladies laid their foundlings out as comfortably as they could, propped up on their sides, trying to be wary of the head injuries they were sporting. Significant goose-eggs and bruising decorated their temples, a matched pair. Kneeling between them, Elbreth pulled off her backpack and rummaged through it.
"What is that?" Cora sniffed curiously at the small glass jar of pale yellow balm as the half-elf smoothed some of it on the angry broken skin of the strangers' heads.
Elbreth laughed. "It won't smell like much. It a salve made of lamb's tongue steeped in oil and thickened with beeswax."
"Lamb's tongue? You mean, the weed?"
"As common as thistle, yes." Elbreth smiled and wiped her hand off on the hem of her dress. "My mother taught me how to make it. I never leave home without it. It'll help with pain and ward against infection." She frowned, "I'm a little concerned that neither of them woke up when we moved them."
"Well, there's nothing for it but to wait. They seem to be sleeping healthily enough," the halfling moved to sit back against the wall. "We might as well get a little rest ourselves." Unbuckling but not removing her cuirass, she tucked her shield behind her back, her backpack behind her head, and her woollen blanket up and under her chin. Before many moments had passed, she was sound asleep.
Elbreth tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and sat back on her heel, regarding her slumbering patients. The dwarf wore a long beard that fell halfway to his belt, the curls woven in a complex pattern of braids and loops. The hair on his head was equally thick and plaited back both simply and securely. He was dressed for battle, his armour glinting in the dim greenish lighting.
The girl's eyes drifted to the half-orc. Such a contrast. What a strange creature. The green-skinned outsider's pallor was intensified by the lighting, his huge frame barely clothed. His torso bare and hairy, he wore some sort of sarong wrapped around his waist, the hem of it flipped up enough to show the short cotton breeches he wore underneath. Colouring, Elbreth quickly pulled the edge of the garment back down and looked away to study his face. Spittle still dripped from the corner of his lips. His mouth can't close all the way around those tusks of his, how inconvenient. Her eyes briefly traced his facial tattoos. A narrow black chevron bisected his lower lip, pointing down his chin. Also, a set of three circles, each larger than the last, marched up his forehead and disappeared into his hairline. So strange, they must mean something. The sides of his head were shaved, albeit roughly, and the remaining length of hair was pulled up into a smooth topknot. A septum ring pierced his nose, and the raking scar of a great claw marred the right side of his face.
Content that they were resting well, Elbreth rolled out her own bedroll on the floor next to her halfling friend and tried to curl into a comfortable position. It wasn't until she tucked her back up against the reassuring warmth of Cora's legs that she finally began to drift off.